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The Year of the Bible

In the last several posts, I’ve discussed my view on various aspects of the story of the Garden of Eden. Given the resolution that the Pennsylvania House passed declaring 2012 to be the Year of the Bible, we ought to ask whether this story “teaches” (to use the resolution’s word) us anything. Actually, I think that’s a hard question to answer. Some would argue that it teaches us about original sin, the fall of humankind from grace, and where the basic problems of nature come from (pain in childbirth, difficulty growing crops). The story itself, however, doesn’t teach any of that. A particular reinterpretation of the story teaches that but not the story as it was originally told.

So, what does it teach? “Darned, if I know” is perhaps the most honest answer, but I’d like to suggest three things that might help with this question. First, the story shows us that not all biblical authors or Read More

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Since 2012 has been declared the year of the Bible in Pennsylvania, and if, as House Resolution 535 says, our nation needs to apply the Bible’s teachings, then it seems like a good idea to take a look at what biblical texts say. Let’s start near the beginning with one of the creation stories. In the introductory course that I teach on the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) at my university, we usually discuss the story of the Garden of Eden in chapters 2 and 3 of the book of Genesis. It’s a story that nearly all of the students claim to know fairly well. I often begin by asking the students who they think is the most trustworthy character in the story. There are only four characters from which to choose. First, there is the deity, who, in most English translations of the Hebrew Bible, is referred to as “the LORD” (or “the LORD God”). Notice the use of all capital letters for the word “LORD.” As you may know, translators make use of this convention (capitalizing all the letters) to render the name “Yahweh” (sometimes spelled Yhwh, Yahveh, or even Jehovah), the name of the god worshipped by the biblical authors. The story’s second character is the man. For reasons I might go into later, we can’t really call him “Adam” — not until late in chapter 4 of Genesis. The third character is the woman; as with the man, we don’t want to give her a proper name just yet. The final character is, of course, the snake.  When asked which of these characters comes across in the story as the most trustworthy, the vast majority of my students say that the answer is Yahweh. I don’t know if it ever occurs to them that I probably wouldn’t be asking the question if Yahweh were indeed the best answer. They usually assume that, because they’re in a religious studies course at a Catholic university, the right answer to this question has to be the god-figure in the story. The least trustworthy, they say, is the snake. But if one takes the story as it’s told in chapters 2 and 3, I think it’s hard to make a good case for this view. I then explain to them that another option is to say that those two answers should be reversed. Occasionally, a student beats me to it and makes this claim during our discussion. This second option is far better in terms of what the story actually says. I’ll explain in coming posts.

I just heard that my state’s House of Representatives passed a resolution last week, declaring 2012 to be the “Year of the Bible.” This is a surprise to me, although I have to admit that I haven’t taken the time to find out a lot about Pennsylvania’s legislature in the 6 years or so since I moved here. The resolution refers to the Bible as “the word of God” and recognizes “our national need to study and apply the teachings of the holy scriptures.” It has a couple of other parts that will likely prove very controversial in the debate over the separation of church and state, but my interest is in the notion that our nation ought to apply the Bible’s teachings. In future posts, I hope to explore the idea by looking at specific biblical texts and the feasibility (or lack thereof) of implementing what they teach. I don’t expect to find a lot that can be directly implemented in our society without an awful lot of reinterpretation. My guess is that the good lawmakers of the Keystone State aren’t fully aware of what the good book actually says.